Back with the BSO for his yearly visit, Christoph von Dohnányi brought a lot of Mozart. Next week it’s all Mozart, all late symphonies; Thursday night it was two middle-period works, with two pieces of Richard Strauss from the far ends of his career. Pianist Emanuel Ax was on hand to play the Mozart concerto, K. 449, and Strauss’s Burleske.
The concert opened without a conductor and with only six players, violinists Malcolm Lowe and Haldan Martinson, violists Steve Ansell and Cathy Basrak, and cellists Jules Eskin and Mihail Jojatu. The sextet opens Strauss’s Capriccio, an opera from 1942, nearly at the end of Strauss’ long life; in its ten minutes of languid chromaticism, shadows of crisis move across its surface before passing. I am among those who still find it difficult to separate this music from its historical moment. The sextet’s greatest attributes, its beauty, refinement and “civilization”, were produced just as that civilization set about destroying itself. All this is to say that Thursday’s persuasive and finely textured performance left me appropriately uncomfortable; the more attractive it was, the more it turned in on itself. Strauss called Cappriccio a “conversation opera”, and intended it to be performed in a small hall. The BSO players had a big hall to fill, so necessarily the performance was more rhetorical than conversational. Lowe and Ansell had several heated exchanges that bordered on argument and threatened to rend the fabric, only to retreat from heated discourse.
Dohnányi’s journey through Mozart started fitfully. The Piano Concerto No. 14 in E-flat, K. 449 from 1784, is considered Mozart’s first “mature” piano concerto. It kicked off an astonishing period where he set the symphony aside and produced eleven concertos in just under three years. In its quirkiness it breaks both with the younger concertos but also stands quite apart from those to come. The first sounds that came from the orchestra were smooth and silky… but also glassy, denatured, and slack, all polished surface. Happily, Ax was having none of this; from his first entrance to the conclusion he was alert, articulate and restless. He often seemed to be trying to rouse the orchestra: his bracing opening passages fairly shouted where the orchestra had been pleasantly murmuring. Against the homogenous strings he produced high timbres that cut and sparkled, and the lower half of the keyboard often sounded of bassoons. The second movement wasn’t quite so starkly opposed, but even here Ax was astir, trying to free up the proceedings. He often pressed forward as if in agitation or irritation, expressions too extreme to qualify as rubato, and which occurred too suddenly for the orchestra to follow precisely. Dohnányi’s tempo in the finale was almost impossibly broad: marked allegro ma non troppo, this was mostly non troppo, a leisurely walking pace that obscured the underlying wit. The entrance of the piano picked things up once again, and a happier tempo was established by the middle of the movement. Ax’s playing was never less than engrossing; his active intellect was married to vital physical impulses that lent momentum and rhythm, and the orchestra responded with some gorgeous sounds. Full of difficulties, this reading was engrossing nevertheless.
The participants were in better agreement during what followed. Strauss’s Burleske began life as a Scherzo; Burleske is a title that carries an air of self-deprecation, perhaps thanks to the fact that the composer’s mentor Hans von Bulow was unremittingly critical of it. Ax has made it something of a Boston specialty: he is the only one to have played it with the BSO since 1978, once at Symphony Hall and once at Tanglewood, and he has played it once with the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra. Burleske’s single 20-minute movement combines youthful exuberance with a touch of arch sophistication. It opens with solo tympani in nod to Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, but almost immediately obliterates any hint of homage. The work is hugely, virtuosic: at times I felt like laughing, not in mockery but in pleasure at the sheer excess, both in Strauss’s writing and in the extravagant energy Ax lavished upon it. It’s a young work, but the composer is no innocent: the melodies are extroverted tart and, possess no little wickedness. Ax’s athletic, powerful and nimbleness were marred only by a few small errors which confirmed that he was playing dangerously at the edge of control. The orchestra was roused and alert though it never quite matched the pianist’s intensity. Their finest moments came in the hallucinatory second subject, where the blurry harmonies hung in the air like auroras before being dispersed by the next solo outburst. By the end the Burleske is a little too enamored of its own effect and takes its time coming to its completion, but Ax’s energy never flagged and the hall erupted at the end of the work, despite its surprising quiet ending.
The orchestra and Dohnányi were on their own for Mozart’s “Haffner” Symphony, K. 385, and in the first movement at least, the energy of the Strauss continued to enliven through rhythmic energy and slashing passages of 16th-notes. The loss of some precision, especially in the exposed opening, constituted a reasonable trade. The Andante was the most successful Mozart of the evening. The regular sixteenth-note pulse in a slightly rapid heartbeat, produced gently amorous affect. The third movement menuet was stodgy although the trio was luminous. The finale tripped along amiably, but it was fatigued by the end and never caught fire. It seems the orchestra and Dohnányi have some work to do before tackling Mozart’s final three symphonies next week.